By Alvaro Murillo
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Several hundred Nicaraguan dissidents set off in a caravan on Sunday from Costa Rica's capital en route to the Nicaraguan border to protest against their president, Daniel Ortega, and encourage his domestic opponents.
More than 300 people have been killed as the Ortega administration has responded, often brutally, to months of anti-government protests and attempted to silence his critics in the Central American nation.
The caravan of buses and a handful of cars left San Jose at around 6 a.m. local time (1200 GMT). The protesters aim to reach the border town of La Cruz in Guanacaste province, almost 270 kilometres (168 miles) north, by the afternoon.
"We're going to tell the people they're not alone and tell the government we're still alive and fighting to return to a different Nicaragua," said one of the protest organizers, Francisca Ramirez, a leader of Nicaraguan farm workers.
Ramirez said she fled Nicaragua in October after being threatened by pro-government forces.
The so-called "Caravan for Freedom and Justice" is due to end with a walk of some 4 kilometres from La Cruz. But it aims to stop short of the Penas Blancas border post to avoid problems. Police were waiting on the Nicaraguan side by mid-morning.
Demonstrations in Nicaragua that began in April against planned welfare cuts - later dropped by the government - quickly morphed into a broader protest against the leftist Ortega.
A former Marxist guerrilla leader and Cold War antagonist of the United States, Ortega has held power continually since 2007. Some critics now liken him to the dictator he once fought to oust. He accuses adversaries of plotting a coup to topple him.
As many as 40,000 Nicaraguans have left for neighbouring Costa Rica since the protests started, according to Articulacion de Movimientos Sociales, (Articulation of Social Movements), the group organising the protest caravan.
Monica Baltodano, head of the foundation Popol Na, one of several non-governmental organizations recently raided by the Nicaraguan government, said the protest hoped to get around 1,000 people to the border with Costa Rica.
On Saturday, Nicaraguan police beat at least seven journalists, including one of the country's best known editors, with batons as part of an escalating crackdown on independent media.
(Reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Additional reporting by Oswaldo Rivas; Editing by Dave Graham and Paul Simao)